By Mike Mastovich
For The Tribune-Democrat
PITTSBURGH – It’s a typical Stanley Cup playoff game day at Mellon Arena. The Johnstown Crew is putting in a full shift, plus overtime.
Head equipment manager Dana Heinze (pictured) navigates the Pittsburgh Penguins locker room, which, thanks to Heinze and his staff, is an efficiently organized and user-friendly haven for a mostly young and talented group of players.
Heinze sharpens a pair of skates, locates a piece of equipment, restocks sticks or fills a bin with various brands of tape requested by superstitious Pens accustomed to using only a particular kind on their respective sticks.
“Even Georges Laraque has to have a cup full of bubble gum in his stall,” Heinze said with a laugh. “After the players leave, we go through that room and make it look like a showroom.”
There rarely is a slow time for Heinze, whose list of things to do seems to be never-ending.
A few feet away, head athletic trainer Chris Stewart tends to players’ bumps, bruises and sprains. Stewart has seen “three too many” high-ankle sprains this season – as in the injuries that slowed down Pittsburgh stars Sidney Crosby, Marc-Andre Fleury and Maxime Talbot.
Stewart and his assistant, Scott Adams, spent recent days concerned about a broken bone in Talbot’s right foot suffered in Game 3 of the New York Rangers series. Talbot is expected back tonight for Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Final against visiting Philadelphia.
“So far, knock on wood, we’ve been pretty healthy,” Stewart said. “You do whatever you can to keep these guys on the ice. It’s the playoffs, do or die, so you have to have your best lineup out there, whatever it takes.”
In an adjoining room, Dave Zeigler performs a number of tasks that, depending on the time of day, range from sewing worn uniforms and socks to replacing a broken clasp on an elbow pad to cleaning the faceshields on players helmets during intermissions or addressing the most pressing duty of the moment.
About 70 miles separate Johnstown and Pittsburgh. But those who rely on the Penguins’ training and equipment staffs know part of the Flood City is in the locker room.
Heinze, Stewart and Zeigler each are Johnstown natives who previously paid their dues with the ECHL’s Johnstown Chiefs.
All are connected to the local hockey community, with Zeigler operating Ziggy’s Sports across Napoleon Street from Cambria County War Memorial Arena.
Adams, a native of Windsor, Ontario, spent a season as equipment manager of the Chiefs before accepting his current position when Stewart, like Heinze, joined the Penguins staff in 2006-07.
“It’s funny because people from Johnstown will come to visit, or even other trainers that have come up through the East Coast Hockey League will see us and they’re always saying, ‘You’ve got the whole Johnstown Crew working,’ ” said Heinze, the Chiefs’ equipment manager nine seasons from 1988-92 and 1995-99. “It is pretty unique to have that many people start their careers in one place and end up in another place only 68 miles away. This was the farthest thing from my mind in 1988 when I started with the Johnstown Chiefs.”
The Johnstown Crew has been part of a special season with the Pens, who have stormed into the conference finals with nine wins in 10 postseason games, including a perfect 6-0 mark at Mellon Arena.
Actually, Heinze and Stewart are hoping lightning strikes twice (pun intended).
Heinze was part of the Tampa Bay Lightning’s Stanley Cup-winning club in 2004. Stewart earned a Stanley Cup ring with the Carolina Hurricanes in 2006.
Both men brought the Cup to Johnstown during their respective days with one of the most prestigious trophies in professional sports.
“We have a really young group of guys. I see a lot of similarities with what happened with Tampa,” Heinze said, referring to young stars Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Jordan Staal and Fleury. “In Tampa, that whole team was one group. I see the same thing here. These guys all are friends. There are no cliques, no little group of guys here or there. These guys are all together. Unless you have a common bond like that, you’re not going to win anything.”
Stewart also watched as a Hurricanes team gained momentum in the playoffs. But he sees some differences.
“With Carolina, it was a lot older team, a lot more veterans,” said Stewart, who spent eight-plus seasons with the Chiefs before accepting a job with Carolina’s AHL affiliate in Lowell one year prior to his ascent to the NHL. “This is a very young team. Both teams were great to be around. It’s two opposite ends of the spectrum.”
Zeigler, known better in Johnstown as “Ziggy,” has logged countless miles and hours working for the Penguins on the nights of home games.
He first joined the game-night staff when longtime Pittsburgh assistant equipment manager Paul DeFazio fell ill.
“Paul DeFazio got sick and was out for three weeks. Ziggy came down to all the home games to help us out,” Heinze said. “When Paul came back, we really had enjoyed Zig’s company. The guys on the staff liked him and the players felt comfortable with him. He does general work in the equipment room and repairs. It’s nice to add another Johnstown guy. He drives down every game, back and forth.”
The Penguins are six wins away from earning hockey’s biggest prize. The Johnstown Crew won’t be in the spotlight, but the blue-collar group will play a significant behind-the-scenes role in the Pens’ playoff march.